Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton -- Four artillery Marines from the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit were blown to the ground by the near hurricane-force winds from a CH-53 Super Stallion helicopter as it lowered to within five feet of their M-198 howitzer.
When they recovered, they watched, spellbound, as the Helicopter Support Team Marines expertly hooked chains on the gun to cables hanging from the bottom of the helicopter, enabling the Super Stallion to haul the howitzer to a designated spot to deliver its destructive force.
The HST, Landing Support Detachment, MEU Service Support Group 13 taught 20 Marines of A Battery, Battalion Landing Team 3/1, how to rig their guns for air delivery June 13 aboard Camp Pendleton, to conduct long range artillery raids.
Howitzers are normally transported by 5-ton truck, and the terrain they can go over is limited. Adding the third dimension of air movement makes the firing battery more versatile in combat, said SSgt. Hector Reyes, the HST commander from Bronx, N.Y.
"This gives the MEU commander a whole new capability for long range arty raids. It is a lot faster and, in some cases, makes a mission possible that otherwise wouldn't be," he said.
After the artillery Marines got a class on safety and the basics of helicopter rigging, they watched the subject matter experts hook the gun up to the helicopter. Afterward, artillery Marines were rotated into the HST to give everyone a chance at rigging.
"I think everyone out there was nervous, at least a little bit, that we were about to have the biggest Marine helicopter hover over us," said LCpl. Ernie Helphingstine, a 19-year-old cannoneer from Rawlins, Wyo.
Once the arty Marines got into the team for the first time, they showed their excitement in learning this new skill, said Cpl. Ann McClendon, a 21-year-old landing support specialist from Crescent City, Calif.
"The whole experience was awesome, but the biggest rush for me was watching the CH-53 coming in and hovering about five feet above my head," exclaimed Helphingstine.
In all the excitement, the Marines didn't forget the reason they were there.
"After the initial shock of the helicopter downwash, these Marines seemed to catch on pretty quickly," said LCpl. John Churchwell, a 20-year-old landing support specialist from Joliet, Ill. "Once you do this a few times it is basically an easy job, but everyone still has to be very careful or it could get dangerous," he said.
Every part of the hook-up is vital, including grounding the cables to deflect the static charge generated by the massive Super Stallion.
"I was one of the guys sitting on top of the gun barrel. My job was to ground out the cables before we could hook up the chains," Helphingstine said. "The hardest part was reaching around each other to hook the chain and then latch it onto the howitzer. There is not a lot of room to work up there. We both have to work together. If one of us does something wrong, we could get shocked or hurt."
This cross training was not intended to replace the landing support Marines with arty Marines, but it is supposed to supplement the MEU's HST detachment, Reyes said. This way the HST can support other missions and only send a couple of their Marines to supervise the battery rigging its own guns.
"The biggest benefit we got out of this evolution was learning how to hook up the howitzers to the helicopter," said 1st Lt. David Valdez, A Battery executive officer. "It was a first-time experience for about 90 percent of our Marines, and now they know about another aspect of artillery."
"I think we definitely have the ability to do this on our own," stated the 27-year-old native of Tucson, Ariz. "But it never hurts to have the expertise of the Marines who do this for a living."
"As small as our detachment is, it is essential for Marines in other job fields to know how to do this," explained Cpl. Eric Stone, a landing support specialist from Houston. "We may not all be available in every situation."
"The main objective is to get the equipment to its destination," the 20-year-old said. "Whether we perform the mission or not is irrelevant."